Ah, Scrabble. Play it often enough and you start seeing those lettered tiles in your dreams, forming words that would be worth 100 points if they actually existed. The much-loved game has endured for over 50 years, providing both family enjoyment and competitive play. Out of all the board games, Scrabble is truly a Cinderella story.
An unemployed architect named Alfred M. Butts designed the game during the Great Depression, after much research into popular games of the time. He imbued his new board game with elements from bingo, checkers, chess and crosswords, hoping to provide the best of all worlds. Butts perused the front page of the New York Times to determine the rate of occurrence for each letter and assign a point value according to frequency of use. In other words, there were plenty of I tiles and E tiles but only one each of Z and Q (the pariah letters often left over on your rack).
Out of a pool of 100 tiles, each player picked seven at random which he then kept hidden from other players. Taking turns, players formed words on the square grid of the board, starting from the middle square. The next player would use a letter of that word to put down his own and so on. Each player had a constant supply of seven tiles, replacing the ones used with new ones from the tile pool. The game ended when the pool was depleted and one player had used all the tiles in front of him or no more words could be formed on the board. The winner was determined by counting the word scores for each player so the first one to the finish wasn’t necessarily the victor.
Back in its humble beginnings, Scrabble was known first as Lexiko, then as Criss-Cross Words but neither incarnation was a huge success. The tide turned when Butts teamed up with businessman James Brunot and the team refined the design and rules of the game. The two entrepreneurs also came up with a new name: Scrabble. With a new name and new look, the board game started production in an old Connecticut schoolhouse, averaging a dozen units per hour. In the early 1950s, Scrabble got its first significant break when the president of Macy’s Department Store discovered the game and started selling it through Macy’s. The game caught on quickly and soon demand for Scrabble boards was too high for Butts and Brunot. They licensed the game to Selchow & Righter who took over production and fed America’s appetite for Scrabble.
The game’s popularity continued and by the 1970s it could be found in almost every home. Scrabble was also popular with educators who appreciated the game’s practical application of spelling, vocabulary and strategic thinking. Scrabble clubs proliferated and national competitions were organized; internationally, Scrabble was a hit as well, since it was translated and marketed around the world. Today, Scrabble sells about 2 million sets a year in the U.S. alone and is available as a computer game and in many versions of electronic handheld games.
If you have fond memories of sitting around a table and playing Scrabble with friends or family, we hope you’ll share those recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this classic board game.